The Belgian ambassador to Rwanda, Arnout Pauwels, was so kind to share some valuable insights in the job that is very much desired by many young professionals with an interest in international affairs. (Featured Image © Embassy of Belgium in Rwanda)
Before starting his diplomatic career, Arnout Pauwels studied Law and European Law, and afterwards worked as a (company) lawyer for seven years. After his training, he was stationed in Costa Rica and later at the Organisation for Security and Cooperation (OSCE) in Vienna. After this term, he worked for four years at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Brussels. Then he became the Belgian ambassador to Afghanistan for two years, and he is currently in his third year in his position in Rwanda.
A Day in the Office, or not
Generally speaking the job of a diplomat, at whichever position in an embassy, is to represent your country in the guest country. The embassy in Kigali serves as the city hall for all Belgians present in Rwanda. At the same time, it forms the bridge between Belgium and its guest country on all relevant matters. Everyone at the embassy has his own areas of speciality, while the ambassador can be seen as the general manager.
Working as a diplomat thus means offering assistance to nationals, keeping up on current affairs, and remaining in contact with your guest country. This is done by accommodating visiting Belgian government members, visiting an educational project on the countryside, or maybe a meeting with the Minister of Trade of your guest country. Traditionally, Belgian diplomacy was mainly trade-oriented, but this has been broadened to include political and social themes, such as human rights. The evolution of development cooperation also had its impact on the job content.
The Future of Diplomacy
The job of a diplomat is susceptible to changes, such as the policy broadening just mentioned. In the meantime, the world is constantly evolving as well. For example, many people all over the world are using social media to express their opinions and concerns. In Mr. Pauwels’ opinion, diplomats need to follow these channels of information as well, which implies that he has an extra few hours of work to keep up with current affairs. Social media offers a swift and thus interesting way of communication for the embassy itself, something which is called public diplomacy.
Of course, changes in the (inter)national field can have implications for diplomats as well, such as elections in the home or guest country, or a new EU-programme. Because of Belgium’s relatively small size, the role of its diplomats is quite relevant. Belgium’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Brussels does not have the resources to fully develop and provide all expertise on each guest country, which makes diplomats abroad vital for policy decisions in Brussels. Diplomats constitute a crucial part in generating in-depth knowledge of the situation in each specific guest country. Another consequence of Belgium’s size is the relatively small corps of diplomats, which creates more career opportunities for the individual diplomats.
The job of a diplomat is thus very diverse and offers a lot of valuable and interesting experiences. However, Mr. Pauwels stresses the need to “undo the job of its romance”, since a lot of misinformation exists. Although diplomats have a variety of tasks, a certain routine is inevitable and some tasks could be considered boring as well. Furthermore, becoming a diplomat is a choice that extends beyond your professional life. A diplomatic career is demanding for you and your family, both the ones you leave behind and the ones who follow you around the world. It requires you to adapt to different surroundings every new term.
For the family members who joined you this implies changing schools, leaving friends behind or looking for a new job. In fact, many spouses of diplomats quit working altogether, because it is challenging to find relevant jobs if you can only work for just a few years each time. Sometimes, spouses decide not to relocate to the next location, which has consequences for the relationship as well.
Lastly, diplomats are government officials. Some people consider this to be an advantage, others dislike it because it comes with a specific framework to work in. It is something to bear in mind when making this career choice.
Advice From an Insider
Arnout Pauwels states that he would never recommend the job, because it has such an impact on your life and that of your family. It is really choosing a way of life, rather than just a job. Of course, any other international career has the same implications.
Having said this, anyone who considers the job should talk to different people in this field about their experiences. This will help to decide for yourself if this is the type of career and life you would like to have. Make sure to ask questions about the practical implications on their lives outside of the job.
Of course, the Ministry in Brussels does take your personal situation in consideration when sending you abroad. You could be sent to a country where household aid is affordable when you have small children for example. Especially for women it is probably important to stress that parenthood and diplomacy are not harder to combine than parenting with any other fulltime job. Practical arrangements can be made all over the world. Diplomacy used to be a men’s world. Luckily women have become a greater part of it, an evolution that Mr. Pauwels would like to see continued.
Eager to discover more about a career in diplomacy or looking for valuable insights from professionals in your domain? You’re in luck! In April we launch CareerAid, an online platform that provides students, recent graduates, and young professionals interested in international affairs (IA) with information on how to personally and professionally develop themselves in order to foster job opportunities and ease their transition from education to employment. This article was only a teaser of what is still to come!